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Posted: Monday June 7, 2010 11:08AM ; Updated: Monday June 7, 2010 12:46PM
Grant Wahl
Grant Wahl>INSIDE THE WORLD CUP

Setting the scene for the World Cup

Story Highlights

World Player of the Year Lionel Messi hopes to stamp his mark on the tournament

Cameroon, behind star Samuel Eto'o, looks the strongest of the African teams

South Africa is keen to prove it can deliver both on the field and off the field

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We're only four days away from the World Cup opener between South Africa and Mexico, so it's a good time to unveil my overview for the tournament. Let's break it down:

FIVE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. Whose name will be on the new era? This World Cup marks the beginning of a new age. The Era of Zinedine Zidane (1998-2006) ended when the genius from France sullied a comeback for the ages by head-butting Italy's Marco Materazzi in Berlin. Since then, three players have won both Champions League titles and FIFA World Player of the Year awards in the same year: Brazil's Kaká, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina's Lionel Messi. All three are capable of taking over the World Cup, yet all three will have to shake their reputations for performing better for their clubs than for their countries. Truth be told, Ronaldo's Portugal and Messi's Argentina were fortunate even to qualify for South Africa, and few observers consider them likely to raise the 13˝-pound gold trophy on July 11. One player who could crash their party, of course, is England's Wayne Rooney.

2. Can South Africa come up big -- on and off the field? No host country has ever failed to advance from the group stage, and Bafana Bafana may well be the first, having plummeted from No. 16 in the FIFA rankings in 1996 to the 80s earlier this year. But Carlos Alberto Parreira's team will have big local support, and it has now gone 11 games without a loss. Then there's South Africa's organization of the tournament itself, the first World Cup held on African soil. Will it be secure enough? Will it run smoothly? The Rainbow Nation has a giant opportunity here to showcase itself for the rest of the world.

3. Is this finally England's year to relive 1966? The country that gave us the sport hasn't reached the semifinals since 1990, but its Italian coach, Fabio Capello, thinks he has a team that can reach the World Cup final. If England were to win it all for just the second time (the first was on home soil in 1966), Capello would become the first foreign coach to lead a team to the World Cup title.

4. Are three-man back lines the new new thing? The latest tactical trend may be going with three men in the back. Who might try it? Say hello to Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Algeria, North Korea and New Zealand. It's not necessarily indicative of a certain playing style. While North Korea is ultra-defensive and plays with three center backs, Chile is a group of swashbuckling attackers under coach Marcelo Bielsa.

5. Politics and sports. You always hope that politics doesn't interfere during the World Cup, but the recent surge in tensions between North Korea and South Korea could spill over to South Africa, where both teams will be competing. North Korea's national pride could be in for a bruising in a group against heavyweights Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast -- all of which will be trying to score as much as possible in a group that could be defined by goal-differential. That leaves me hoping that 1) North Korea doesn't instigate anything globally during the World Cup, and 2) the North Korean players are treated well upon their return home, no matter how they perform in South Africa.

FIVE TEAMS TO WATCH

1. France. One of the tournament's most talented but unpredictable teams, Les Bleus has been saddled for years with the enigma that is coach Raymond (Crazy Ray) Domenech. What I like: wingers Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda, rising star goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. What I don't like: Crazy Ray and his loopy decisions. Of all the European powers, this is the one most likely to crash out of the group stage.

2. Argentina. Diego Maradona is a deity in Argentina on account of his 1986 World Cup glory, but as a coach Maradona makes Isiah Thomas look like Phil Jackson. What does Messi have to do to get a good manager at the World Cup? In '06 he sat on the bench as Jose Pekerman didn't bother to use Messi in the quarterfinal exit against Germany. And now Messi has to deal with El Diego. Pobrecito.

3. Cameroon. It's the first World Cup on African soil, but which African teams could go deep? Ivory Coast got a terrible draw with Brazil and Portugal. Ghana lost injured star Michael Essien and is in the Group of Depth with Germany, Serbia and Australia. Nigeria was better 10 years ago. Perhaps the continent's best chance is Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions have one of the world's top big-game goal-scorers, Samuel Eto'o, and quality players surrounding him, to say nothing of a good coach in Paul Le Guen. I've got Cameroon dumping Italy in the second round to reach the quarters.

4. United States. Being favored to advance from the group stage is a new position for the U.S., which tends to play better as an underdog than as the favorite. If the Americans really are one of the top 15 teams in the world, then there will be no excuse if they don't advance to the second round in a group that includes mid-level teams like Slovenia and Algeria. If it reaches the knockout rounds, the U.S. would probably be an underdog in a second-round game against a team from Group D (Germany, Serbia, Ghana).

5. Brazil. No, there is no Ronaldinho or Neymar or Alexandre Pato on this Brazil outfit. But Dunga has constructed a highly practical team that could easily win its sixth World Cup title behind Kaká. Whether Brazil's fans would be happy with winning in a less aesthetic style is another matter altogether, though.

 
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